matt rhule baylor

My final moments with American Wifi. I miss you.

On the way to Shanghai, I had a layover in Dallas. I had been to Dallas one other time: training for a recruiting job in the electrical industry. It’s an unimportant fact, but one I thought about while sitting at the departure gate in Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport.

Guess I felt like looking at my life and present moment poetically. I was roughly an hour away from sitting on a plane that would take me far away from where I’m from, and further away from where I had been in my career.

I thought job training in Dallas was a major step up. Not because recruiting is some great job, though I have a fixation with a career in helping others. Rather, the idea that someone was so interested in my employment that they would fly me to another city was something I hadn’t experienced.

Before accepting a teaching job in China, I interviewed for a number of customer success roles in the IT industry. An interviewer mentioned that if employed, I would be sent to Los Angeles for on-boarding and training. It was stressed that the company would be “making an investment” in me. It was a not-so-subtle reminder that I wasn’t being hired just to leave. The risk being made meant I owed them my commitment.

I didn’t get that job. I quit that recruiting job after two months due to the stress that came with it. Now here I was, sitting at the gate, getting ready to take the longest flight of my life and accept the largest investment a company has ever made in me. There was no quitting or coming back. I was committed. For a year, at least.

Which is a long time to get used to new values, traditions, and oddly, technology. Leading to my departure for China, I took time to appreciate the last vestiges of being on American soil. I wasn’t leaving forever. But I knew I was leaving long enough to make me miss certain aspects of home.

I ate a lot of junk food, devoting each day to eating something I figured wouldn’t be available abroad. I spent one day eating pizza. Another two at Waffle House and IHOP. There was a trip to Red Lobster. I drove to Cookout past midnight on a Sunday to over-indulge on bacon cheeseburgers. Naturally, I ripped through a box of Fruity Pebbles.

I was in the gym everyday. I binged on Netflix and Hulu each night alongside my roommate, bringing together content with a person I knew I would miss more than anyone else. I drove my car everywhere. I made sure to spend time with the few friends I have in Atlanta. As someone who had never left home for more than a week at a time, it felt like goodbye.

With my laptop in hand, I sat near the gate with less than an hour remaining before my flight was set to board. Dallas represented my last moments to do something, anything that might not come as easy in the place I would be calling “home” for the next year.

Finding out how much of the internet is censored in China–showing my ignorance in the process–was daunting. My family and I tried reading a list of sites that are banned. It was too long. But I generally understood that any site that went against Chinese values or presented the possibility of speaking ill against the Chinese government and its citizens would be blocked.

I connected to the airport WiFi and started by downloading some songs and podcasts on Spotify for offline content. Airplane mode and all. Consider this a warm-up task.

The real task was Vice. With Deadspin and Splinter News gone, Vice has become my go-to site for a good read. But it was early in the morning, I want to say around nine o’clock. Updates were scarce. There wasn’t much new for me to discover.

So I logged onto YouTube. Then Reddit. Then Instagram. And then I was quickly getting bored. There was nothing I wanted to see that I hadn’t already spent hours seeing the night before. Damn this unlimited access! In my last moments of using American WiFi, I had no worthwhile use for it.

Then it hit me: I could call my cousin. He’s a truck driver, on the road what feels like everyday. Which isn’t totally true, but it’s a rare moment when he’s at home. Texting someone operating a small train on wheels presents safety problems, for him and anyone else on the highway. So we only talk over the phone, at times for hours in an attempt to get caught up on one another’s lives.

I didn’t speak to him the day before, giving me a chance to do one more thing that would be tougher once I landed in Shanghai: make a phone call.

Our conversations revolve around sports, politics, family news, and a reminder that being black can be trying. The last topic is optional. But this conversation was different.

I was scared. Scared of leaving the country for the first time. Scared of committing myself so deeply to a career I had no experience in. I usually shield the cracks in my mental state with humor and aimless commentary. But on this morning, my anxiety was front and center.

He assured me everything would be fine and asked about everything I had taken care of before flying out of Atlanta. It was a shot at how much I had given up to get to this point, driving my anxiety even higher. Thanks for that.

We talked the NFL Playoffs (something I would miss), the College Football Championship (another thing I would miss), and the Conor McGregor fight (yup, I missed all the things). I kept looking back at the gate, checking to see when my flight was boarding. I wanted the conversation to last forever as a delaying mechanism, putting off the inevitable.

“Did you hear what happened? Carolina hired the guy from Baylor.”

Wait–wait, wha?! How did I miss this news? Why was something major happening in the sports world on the day I’m set to leave? I immediately logged onto ESPN to see the headline story and cover photo: Matt Rhule was the new head coach of the Carolina Panthers.

That might not mean shit to you because it shouldn’t mean shit to any of us. In a nutshell, here is what happened: A man looking for better career opportunities accepted a job with a company he had interviewed with earlier. It’s–it’s literally a person just living his professional life.

The fact I cared enough to read an article on how this happened shows that a) I’m a big fan of the NFL, b) I’m weird, and c) it was a slow news morning. But there I was, frantically pulling up all the sports websites to get more information.

I started with The Ringer. I forgot Rhule was all but predicted to join the New York Giants. What a juicy betrayal of people’s unfair expectations. I switched over to SBNation and quickly searched the blog for Giants’ fans. They weren’t pleased, but saying all the right things about moving forward. That’s what fans do when we are upset but have to quickly talk ourselves into a new reality. My favorite team lost a Super Bowl after leading 28-3. I’m trained in the art.

I’m doing this while still talking to my cousin. He could probably tell I was distracted by all the reading. I’m not a good multi-tasker. I have to place 100% of my focus on a task if it’s going to be done adequately, at worst. Once that focus is split, that means I end up doing a crappy job at both tasks.

My phone conversation was fading with less words emanating from my lips, and the level at which I could retain information and learn more about how this story happened wasn’t much better.

Matt Rhule did a great job lifting a college program flooded in sexual assault accusations and tossed in the lowest depths of hell alongside former coach Art Briles. In the end, Rhule accepted a high-paying job to further his career. He may or may not be a good NFL coach. That’s all the analysis you or I needed.

I looked back at the gate. My flight was boarding. I was out of time. I closed my laptop and prepared some words I could live with to close the call. I’ve never been good at conclusions. Conversations, relationships, essays, teaching a class, blog posts, it doesn’t matter. Bringing things to an end has never been my strong suit.

My cousin and I rambled about the Titans’ chances against the Ravens and the favorites to reach the Super Bowl before I blurted, “My flight is boarding; looks like I gotta go.” I’ve learned that saying something suddenly and with volume always works as a means of ending what would otherwise be a never-ending conversation.

That would mark the last time I use American WiFi. The last time I had unrestricted internet access. The last time I would enjoy a fast connection and download information quickly. The last time I wouldn’t need a VPN to stand its ground so I can post my writing to WordPress.

One day, someone–maybe a child, my child, a friend, or whoever–will ask what was the last thing I did before going to China. I will tell them I spoke to someone I consider a brother, my biggest supporter in one of the crazier decisions I have ever made. That he was the one to ultimately send me off to explore a new world.

But deep down I would know the truth: my final moment was learning that Matt Rhule found a better job. The mix of disgust and disappointment will be painted on my face.

I hate the Carolina Panthers.

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